Mapping our deep-sea environment

A marine biologist taking part in one of New Zealand’s most significant deep-sea research projects says the results will help identify vulnerable marine ecosystems in the South Pacific region, contribute to New Zealand’s ongoing conservation commitments and reveal new species.


Professor Jonathan Gardner is a lead researcher on the three-year project being conducted by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA).

The project will use mapping technology and complex biological models to identify vulnerable marine ecosystems—ecosystems that may bedamaged by activities such as fishing, oil and gas drilling or dumping.

Using data collected over a number of years on seabed features and habitat types, models will be created for predicting the likelihood of finding different species of deep-sea animals in the region, and estimating their vulnerability.

Cameras and sonar equipment will be sent far below the water’s surface to capture images and data on the deep-sea marine environment, and the animals living there, to test and refine the models.

Jonathan is leading the analysis of genetic connectivity between deep-sea species, such as sea urchins, mussels, corals and brittle stars.

“My work will involve identifying the levels of connectivity among different sites, both near and far, so that we understand how different sites are vulnerable to disturbance.

“It will help to answer important questions such as, if a population was depleted, where would the repopulation of the species come from?

“We know that sites that are well connected are less vulnerable, whereas sites that are isolated or poorly connected are more vulnerable. These vulnerable sites require the greatest protection, because if they are damaged then they may not be able to recover.”

Jonathan says the project is significant for New Zealand’s future.

“We are responsible for an ocean area over 17 times our land area—yet we know surprisingly little about the ecosystems within it. This project will make a significant step towards increasing our knowledge and understanding.”